Protecting Kids Online 1: How Big is the Problem?

I’ve received a couple questions lately about keeping kids safe online. We see news reports all the time about the danger of social networking sites, and the problems with posting personal information online, and the number of children who have been exposed to inappropriate material online. Today, I’m starting a series of blog posts about cybersafety to take a fairly comprehensive view of the issue and what we can do about it.

Today, we’re starting with a look at the problem itself. Maybe you’ve heard about the softball player who was stalked by someone she met online. She thought he was a 14-year-old boy halfway across the country instead of a 40-year-old man in her town (the story is fiction, by the way). We’ve seen plenty of news items about how dangerous the Internet is for kids. Most of them cite statistics that claim that one out of every seven teens with Internet access has been sexually solicited online. We hear stories about children and teens getting tricked into meeting online predators. Theoretically, all of those things can happen. But the problem may not be as serious as many would have you believe.

Take, for example, the one-in-seven statistic. That comes from Online Victimization of Youth: Five Years Later, a report from from the Crimes Against Children Research Center. Here’s what the report actually says:

…approximately 1 in 7 youth Internet users (13%) received unwanted sexual solicitations or approaches in the past year. Close to half of the solicitations were relatively mild events that did not appear to be dangerous or frightening. Four (4) percent of all youth Internet users, however, received aggressive sexual solicitations, which threatened to spill over into “real life” because the solicitor asked to meet the youth in person; called them on the telephone; or sent them offline mail, money, or gifts. Also 4% of youth Internet users had distressing sexual solicitations that left them feeling very or extremely upset or afraid. Two (2) percent of youth had solicitations that were both aggressive and distressing.

from Shavar on FlickrSo while the implication is that 13% of our teens are being stalked by predators, the reality is that only 4% of teens are upset or afraid, and only half of them were in situations where the person tried to initiate offline contact. While one in fifty is still a serious problem, it’s not on the same scale as one in seven. A panel discussion of these findings took place recently among experts meeting in Washington, D.C. Video and transcripts of this discussion are online.

The Pew Internet and American Life Project studied teens and online stranger contact in 2007. They found that nearly a third of online teens have been contacted online by someone with no connection to them or their friends. That’s not too surprising. I meet new people online all the time. It’s not necessarily any more dangerous than striking up a conversation with someone in line at the store, or the people in adjacent seats at a concert or sporting event. Considering the facts that they count social networking friend requests and spam email messages in this count, I’m surprised that the number isn’t higher. A more important number is the percent of teens who have been contacted by a stranger online who made them feel frightened or uncomfortable. The Pew study reports a figure of 7%. Again, it’s not an insignificant number, but it’s not a third of online teens.

Interestingly, the biggest predictors of stranger contact are social network profiles and posting photos online. Teens who have publicly-viewable profiles on social networking sites, or who have posted photographs of themselves online are twice as likely to be contacted by people they don’t know.

Writing in the New York Times, David Pogue points to some of the findings reported in a recent PBS Frontline documentary, Growing Up Online. Pogue points to several quotes from producer Rachel Dretzin, including these:

The data shows that giving out personal information over the Internet makes absolutely no difference when it comes to a child’s vulnerability to predation.

The vast majority of kids who do end up having contact with a stranger they meet over the Internet are seeking out that contact.

All the kids we met, without exception, told us the same thing: They would never dream of meeting someone in person they’d met online.

These statements directly contradict most of the cyber-safety information that’s intended to help protect kids. The first item, certainly, contradicts the Pew report I just mentioned.

The Byron Review released its report on cybersafety in March, 2007 (an executive summary and a guide for students are also available). The report focuses on video games, media content, and Internet use among children and teens. I like the analogy to swimming. The odds that you are going to die by drowning are approximately 1 in 1100. Yet we still have swimming pools and water parks. We still go to the beach. Some people even have dangerous bathing tubs in their own homes. We put up fences around the pools. We post signs warning about the dangers of drowning. We post lifeguards in busy swimming areas. We have shallow ends. We do everything we can to protect people from the danger. But at the same time, we also teach people how to swim, so they can protect themselves.

Conclusions? Children need to be protected online. Certainly. Especially at younger ages. As they get older, they need to learn how to protect themselves. This is really important, and cyber-safety is something we should be addressing with every student. But it’s not more important than teaching kids how to cross the street or ride a bike. The Internet is not more dangerous than firearms or alcohol or cars, all of which kill a significant number of teens each year. The problem calls for a balanced, reasoned approach. And we’ll start there with part 2.

3 thoughts on “Protecting Kids Online 1: How Big is the Problem?

  1. If I hadn’t met in person people I originally met online, I would have missed out on many significant relationships in my life, including the one I have with my spouse!

    There is also far too much emphasis placed on the supposed privacy of “personal data” for both adults and kids. Your name, address, phone number, and other so-called “personal data” was publicly available long before computers. Computers have just made it easier to access that data.

    The swimming analogy is a good one. Water in and of itself isn’t good or bad – it’s how we relate to it that defines it for that moment. A computer is a tool. How we use it determines how we perceive it. If someone has a negative encounter with another person that they met online, the computer isn’t to blame! Kids are no more likely to meet “bad people” online than they are in person. In fact, I am far more worried about the influence of the poor choices of their peers than I am about anyone “bad” they might meet online.

  2. Hi John,

    I appreciate your information on cybersafety. As a parent and educator, it is valuable to be aware of the best ways to keep kids out of places that are not appropriate for them and that could put them at risk.


  3. Great post, John. Yes, it’s about protecting and teaching kids to live online.

    Two pieces from my favorite NPR podcast that are relevant:

    Peer to Peer:
    January 23, 2009 Last year, 49 state attorneys general created The Internet Safety Technical Task Force to study the problem of how to keep kids safer online. A year later, the task force’s findings have caused some controversy. Namely that the biggest threat to kids on the internet comes from their peers. Task force member and CEO of the Family Online Safety Institute Stephen Balkam discusses the study.


    Growing Up Online:
    January 30, 2009 – A whole generation of children has grown up connected to the Internet. Berkman Center for Internet & Society director John Palfry calls these kids “digital natives.” Palfrey argues in his book Born Digital that they see the world in a profoundly different way than the rest of us.

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